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New Hampshire primary: why the 2012 campaign is different

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"This forum is very refreshing.... It gave the time to delve far below the usual sound bite," she said.

Still, when New Hampshirites go to the polls on Jan. 10, it is likely that many will have collected their information about the candidates in a more secondhand fashion than has been customary.

"The media primary has surpassed Iowa or New Hampshire this year – where voters are really getting their information from the Internet and from the [televised] debates in a way that they never have before," says Jennifer Donahue, a public policy fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Washington.

That's not to say that the winner here (and perhaps even second- or third-place candidates) won't get a "bump" as they head into states that come next on the GOP primary calendar.

Moreover, what happens in New Hampshire – which has shifted since the early 1990s from "red state" to "swing state" – may give clues not only to GOP primary voters' proclivities, but also, and perhaps more important, to the GOP candidates' potential strength in the race against President Obama.

"If you can win the New Hampshire [GOP] primary, it's usually an indication that you will have a better chance in a general election because the New Hampshire Republicans are much more moderate – they're closer to the center of America's political distribution," says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

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